Infiniti is a brand that has been quietly undergoing major upheaval – and not just with the numbers and letters on its trunklids. Back in December, Nissan's premium brand rankled fans and pundits by announcing it would redo its alphanumeric nomenclature, yet that decision was but a PR speedbump – there are bigger fish to fry. After all, this is a marque that was on the chopping block just a couple of years ago, and now it has a major opportunity to succeed thanks to new investment, new independence (Infiniti is now responsible for its own design, engineering, marketing, quality and human resources), a new global headquarters in Hong Kong, and new marching orders from new leadership that calls for a revitalized and expanded portfolio.
Yet if you think that the Q-based naming convention is the first sign of the brand's new direction, you might have missed Infiniti's biggest signal flare: the 2013 JX crossover. Fine premium three-row crossover that it may be, it's still the first Infiniti in ages that operates without a scintilla of driving entertainment at the core of its genetic makeup. (The last – and perhaps only – previous example was also Pathfinder-based, the 1997 QX4). To be fair, three-row CUVs have a laundry list of priorities before driving enjoyment figures in, but the message the JX (henceforth known as the QX60) sends is clear: Infiniti is going after more segments and more customers. Plans are afoot to expand the company's product line by a whopping 60 percent over the next five years, and in short, that means Infiniti is no longer content to be the unsung Japanese BMW – it needs vehicles that satisfy a wider swath of consumers. Despite all this, Infiniti officials we spoke with were keen to assert that driving pleasure remains very much core to their mission, and to that of this 2014 Q50 in particular.
And surely the Q50 is something different and altogether more palatable to enthusiasts, right? After all, it replaces the bedrock G37 sport sedan at the heart of the lineup (well, sort of), and the latter was always regarded as a good handler and a dynamic drive, even if its overall refinement left something to be desired as it aged. Yet some of the Q50's new technology, in particular drive-by-wire steering (a world's first production application) and a new degree of autonomous capability, had us curious to see if the most important part of the experience is still down to the soft-headed bit belted in front of the steering wheel. We spent a day driving both standard and hybrid Q50s in New England and a few more on our metro Detroit home turf to find out if there's still a healthy percentage of "sport" in this sedan.
If there's any waffling going on about dynamic priorities in this Q50, it isn't evident in its aesthetics. The new car looks fantastic, sinewy and muscular in a way that its predecessor never managed. The front appears lower, wider and more forceful, and that's no illusion: the new car is 2.0 inches wider than the outgoing model, and it's taken a 0.4-inch haircut as well. The nose is defined by scowling LED headlamps and a larger grille whose vertical pinch lines splay into a deeply sculpted hood, with Q50S models like our photo car receiving a slightly snarlier lower fascia and driving lamps. The profile really works well, too, with the slightly longer dash-to-axle proportion that only a front-engined, rear-drive layout engenders. Sunlight and reflections love this car, especially along the bodysides, where the lower cut-in is well-defined by a tendon-like sheetmetal crease.
The new car looks fantastic, sinewy and muscular in a way that its predecessor never managed.
The greenhouse is more interesting than the norm, too, thanks to a rear pillar derived from Infiniti's stunning 2009 Essence showcoupe. Some may find the treatment a bit fiddly in pictures, but it really comes good in the metal, particularly from the rear three-quarter view, where it serves to emphasize the car's haunches. The back end features a steeply raked backlight and oversized, tapered taillamps, with a couple of bands of silver trim defining the license plate pocket and echoing the newly subtle lip spoiler. Even the hybrid model gets a pair of properly sized exhaust outlets – Infiniti isn't trying to fool anyone into thinking the gas-electric is powered solely by excited electrons.
Overall, the Q50 spans 188.3 inches, 0.4-inches longer than the G37 (nearly a half-foot longer than the 3 Series), with that extra length all contained in the overhangs as the 112.2-inch wheelbase remains the same. The new shape looks appreciably better to the wind, as well, registering a 0.26 coefficient of drag. That identical wheelbase hints at a carryover chassis, but a lot of reengineering has been done to increase stiffness and improve noise, vibration and harshness. Changes include different upper and lower front and rear structural members, as well as a unique dash panel and cowl. In addition, engineers have increased use of high-tensile steel in the pillars and roof structure. Even with the larger overall size and more content, Infiniti has managed to scrape 54 pounds from its sport sedan, with a curb weight down to 3,574 pounds for the base model.
Infiniti has managed to scrape 54 pounds, with a curb weight down to 3,574 pounds.
Impressively, Infiniti has also kept pricing down, starting from $37,605 (including $905 for delivery). That's actually cheaper than the asking price for the 2013 G37 ($38,255 delivered), in part due to differing equipment levels (e.g. no standard leather). However, we hear a discount to bring the MSRP in-line with actual discounted average transaction prices is just days away. [UPDATE: Infiniti has just announced it is dropping the G37's price to $32,550 plus $905 delivery. It will live on through the 2015 model year.]
Despite the identical wheelbase, Infiniti has also managed to carve out additional space inside, including increased front headroom (+0.4 inches, to 39.5 inches), front and rear legroom (44.5 front / 35.1 rear – gains of 0.6 and 0.4 inches), and shoulder room (56.7 / 56.1 – up 1.1 inches in front and 0.9 in back). Total interior volume thus climbs to 101.9 cubic feet, up nearly three cubes, but that lilting back glass eats away 0.4 inches of rear headroom. Overall, though, the Q50 feels bigger everywhere, even in back, where the B-pillar has been resculpted and the front seatbacks slimmed down to make second-row occupants feel less confined.
The dashboard adopts a new dual-cowl look and features a completely redesigned center stack that's angled toward the driver to emphasize a cockpit-like feel. Materials are a notch or two above the outgoing car, and we really like the way the door panels flow out of the instrument panel in waves that remind of us of the sheetmetal's contours on the other side of the glass. The cabin's most radical departure over the G37 takes place in the center stack, which is dominated by a pair of touchscreens.
This new infotainment architecture, dubbed InTouch, incorporates an eight-inch upper screen and a seven-inch lower screen to keep tabs on audio, climate control, navigation, as well as various drive mode and safety feature selectors. We've seen a similar take on the twin-screen approach with Acura's On Demand Multi Use Display, but early testing suggests this is a more effective way to wrangle the automobile's ever-increasing technology load. That's partially because the on-screen menus are both well thought-out and personalizable, and partially because you don't need to use the upper touchscreen for most things (it's a further reach, and will generally only be used for fiddling with navigation functions). But the smartest decision involves keeping hard buttons for primary audio controls (including an actual volume knob, novelty of novelties) and climate control functions, including temperature, fan speed, airflow and seat heaters (sadly, cooled seats aren't on the option list yet). This mixture of physical switchgear and app-like touchscreen menus strikes us as a better compromise than something like Cadillac CUE, though both system's screens are prone to excessive fingerprints.
The center stack is dominated by a pair of touchscreens.
In fact, for a car with so much technology inside, a handful of other traditional – and dare we say, driver-oriented – decisions have been made inside. For one, Infiniti didn't look to reinvent the stick with the Q50's now-taller gearshift lever. There's no funky rotary knob action or fiddly e-gear selector, just simple detents front to back and a manual +/- gate. Mercedes-Benz and BMW, take note. There isn't even an electronic parking brake – it's a foot pedal, for goodness sake. We would've preferred a handbrake, but the center console is occupied by a drive mode selector rocker switch (Standard, Sport, Eco, Snow, Personal) and a rotary jog dial that provides a second way to access InTouch.
In terms of driveline, at least with the gas-only car, the Q50 favors evolution over revolution. Power comes from a modestly retouched version of the evergreen VQ-Series 3.7-liter V6, tuned to deliver 328 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque – identical figures to the G37. Yet it's more serene than last year's car, thanks in part to a new intake and exhaust. You can have any transmission you like, so long as it's the carryover seven-speed automatic. The six-speed manual has been broomed, though there's idle chatter of it possibly rejoining the program in future model years. Fuel economy is up, too, with EPA ratings sitting at 20 miles per gallon in the city and 30 on the highway, with a combined cycle of 23 mpg, which is better than the short-lived G25 with its uninspiring 2.5-liter V6. A turbo four-cylinder and diesel are on the way thanks to a deal with Daimler, and Infiniti is going to need them if they want to attack the Germans model-for-model.
The six-speed manual has been broomed, though there's idle chatter of it possibly rejoining the program in the future.
If you're wondering why we've buried actual discussion of the way the Q50 drives until this point, that's because Infiniti has done the same to some extent. In seeking to increase the attractiveness of this car among a broader array of premium shoppers, the automaker has created a sedan whose character varies tremendously depending on which model is chosen and which option boxes are checked. We spent the majority of our time in a fully loaded all-wheel-drive Q50S Hybrid model, but we also snuck some time in a lower-spec rear-drive gas-only car. We much, much preferred the latter, but the trim you fancy will depend on what you value in a car: engagement or comfort, tech and economy.
We'll start with the standard RWD Q50 to assuage your now-frayed nerves – it's still very much a sport sedan. Its newfound interior refinement doesn't get in the way of an enjoyable driving experience. It still offers plenty of power, very good balance, faith-affirming brakes and – praise be – standard hydraulic steering with actual road feel. We recommend splurging for the optional magnesium paddle shifters, since they work quite well – the transmission even blips the throttle on downshifts – especially as they preserve a welcome dose of control now that the manual transmission is gone. Also in that same vein, the standard Drive Mode selector does a fine job of altering throttle rates, transmission shift schedule, and the Direct Adaptive Steering system's effort and ratio if so equipped (we'd pass on the latter, but more on that in a moment).
This Q50 is a very nice piece – a worthy G37 successor with a needed dose of refinement.
Better yet, the Q50's front double-wishbone and reworked rear four-link multilink suspension doesn't beat you up on pockmarked roads, even though it comes with standard 17-inch all-season runflats (our photo car was equipped with optional 19-inch summers). The ride is simply more composed than what BMWs have taught us to expect with this sort of rubber, even if ultimate grip isn't all that it should be (a proper set of conventional summer tires would help). All-in, this Q50 is very nice piece – a worthy G37 successor with a needed dose of refinement. There's also an available slightly stiffer sport suspension, which oddly comes as standard fit on the Hybrid, even non-S models.
Speaking of, there's the all-singing, all-dancing AWD Q50S Hybrid we drove, equipped with the aforementioned drive-by-wire steering as well as Active Lane Control, Blind Spot Intervention, Back Up Collision Intervention and a whole host of safety and creature comfort options. It skews pretty far to the other end of the involvement spectrum for a number of reasons.
We don't really have any qualms about the Hybrid's powertrain – quite the opposite, really. It's actually more powerful, with a 3.5-liter V6 generating 302 hp and 258 lb-ft backed by a lithium-ion-fed electric motor with 67 hp and 214 lb-ft. Combined system power is pegged at 360 hp – an appreciable increase over the standard Q50 – but then, it's also heavier, starting at 3,913 lbs, so the output difference is largely masked. A combined torque figure is not available. Fuel economy bumps up nicely, though, with city numbers rising to 29 mpg and the highway rating moving to 36 mpg, for a combined rating of 31 mpg – better than what the gas-only car achieves on the open road (all-wheel drive models like our tester only muster 27/31/28, however). It also feels good, with power all over the rev range and the ability to start off under electric-only motivation, not to mention the ability to sail under battery power on slight freeway descents.
The much-ballyhooed Direct Adaptive Steering leaves us cold.
So what's the problem? Well, aside from the usual hybrid slow-speed refinement issues incurred under regenerative braking, it's the much-ballyhooed Direct Adaptive Steering that leaves us cold. It's standard on even on the entry-level Hybrid Premium model ($44,855 delivered, including leather, power steering column and sport suspension). Like some other new systems we've encountered, DAS incorporates both driver-adjustable weighting and rack quickness, but unlike other systems, there's no mechanical linkage between the steering wheel and the front tires under normal conditions. Basically, a sensor reads the angle change as the driver turns the wheel, and then hands over that data to an ECU, which calculates how much force is called for to move the car in the intended direction using a steering angle motor. Steering "feedback" is then manufactured by a force actuator mounted to the column. Infiniti says the system reduces "dirty noise" steering vibrations, reduces kickback and better keeps the car on track on uneven surfaces and in heavy crosswinds (by incorporating data from the lane departure system's camera), all of which is true, and its variable rate indeed affords quicker turn-in with good accuracy.
We have no trouble believing that a driver comfortable with DAS may actually turn in a slightly quicker lap time on a roadcourse. But we'll happily give up those few tenths for better communication, as this system just doesn't offer the feedback of even a good electronically assisted rack. Nor did we find a happy personalized setting for weight, which varies from light and overassisted to leaden. It's almost as if Infiniti engineers have chosen to showcase the system's bandwidth at the expense of finding the right setting. We also never found the hydraulically assisted Q50 to need lots of minute corrections to keep it on path, so the by-wire improvement potential strikes us as of dubious merit. As an architecture, DAS even weighs about the same as its conventional cousin, because it still has to incorporate a small clutch and a redundant steering shaft to provide conventional mechanical steering in the event of a failure.
To be fair, the system isn't so off-puttingly synthetic that a driver who hasn't experienced it will feel something is awry on a trip to the corner store – if you're picturing one of those video game controller shaker feedback things, you've got it all wrong. But when driven even moderately spiritedly, DAS just doesn't deliver the goods to your fingertips, something that becomes particularly clear after driving a Q50 with conventional steering. For now, DAS strikes us as technology for the sake thereof. That might be somehow acceptable in a luxury car, but it makes for a downright annoying development in a sport sedan, especially when it costs more and adds complexity.
The optional camera-based Active Lane Control takes the Q50 a good ways down Autonomy Road.
In truth, the real benefit of the system isn't about the driver at all – almost the opposite – it's about the capabilities DAS affords the optional camera-based Active Lane Control, which, like the similar system we recently tried in the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, takes the Q50 a good ways down Autonomy Road. Included with Infiniti's new Lane Departure Prevention technology, ALC can keep a car centered in its lane by reading the road's painted lines, even around slight corners. Combined with Intelligent Cruise Control, which can slow the car to a stop and then accelerate again, this effectively means that on a straight-enough piece of road, you can all but take your hands off the wheel and leave the driving to the Q50, a characteristic that might be desirable for reducing fatigue in a slow-moving traffic jam, say.
Yet in practice, we found that when our tester wandered over far enough to one side that it beeped a warning, it tended to hold the car in the lane by toeing the line, something that might make the driver – or other motorists – nervous. At least the system doesn't rudely yank the car back into the lane with the opposite-side brakes, as the S-Class can. Instead, it subtly countersteers using DAS so as not to alarm the driver. That's all well and good in theory, but after trying it out for a good long while, we turned it off and didn't have the desire to reactivate it.
Company officials are quite proud of all this gee-whizzery, and while we don't consider ourselves Luddites, when we heard CEO Johan de Nyscchen say "These are just the start of a range of future technologies that are becoming a point of differentiation for our Infiniti customers," we didn't smile. The handwriting is on the wall with this sort of technology – we know it's coming, but that doesn't mean we're eager to own it (let alone pay more for the privilege), at least while it forces so many compromises with aspects of driving we genuinely care about.
It's well priced, attractive and fun-to-drive if you don't bring along the high-tech nannies.
Listen – exactly none of the issues we have with Infiniti's new mission or new technologies indicate that we think it's necessarily barking up the wrong tree, at least insofar as building a business case goes. There's a lot of really good work in the Q50, particularly if you're judicious with the options list. It's well priced, attractive and fun-to-drive if you don't bring along the high-tech nannies. And as far as expanding its product portfolio to improve its chances for profitability, Infiniti has little choice. Right now, it's more-or-less trapped in the same near-prestige, lower-consideration malaise as Acura, and it needs a fuller range to properly combat Audi, Cadillac, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, and of course, BMW. Incidentally, it isn't like the Bavarians haven't occasionally lost sight of their Ultimate Driving Machine mantra in their own bid for ambitious growth, yet it's hardly hurting sales. But in order for that strategy to keep working, BMW must continue to understand that it will have to throw the driving enthusiasts that put it on the map an occasional crust – cars like the 1 Series M Coupe and the M3. Let's hope de Nyscchen understands that, too.